Monday, June 29, 2015

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. Washington Square Press; 2009. 484 pages. Paperback/Softcover. 

This is one of those books that frustrates me.

This is one of those books that was both good, bad, intriguing, and boring all at the same time. If you've never read a book like that, then that probably sounds pretty odd. However, I'm inclined to believe that most readers have come across a book or two like this throughout their reading journeys.

In brief, this story is told with a mix of present-day narrative and flashbacks (though more flashbacks than present-day narrative) by Grace, a woman who worked as a housemaid at the Riverton household. Her flashbacks are prompted by a film producer who intends to create a film revolving around the shocking suicide that took place at the household one night.

To begin this review, I would like to start at the end. The ending was brilliant; I loved it. It was the ending that saved the book - big time. Some people claim that it was "predictable" and "cliche," but I didn't find it to be that way at all. Perhaps I just haven't read the same books as them. Who knows. The entire story before the end sort of drudged along until the climactic moment at the end when we learn what really happened to all of the characters. I think the key to this ending being so remarkable was because rather than just revealing the answers to all of our (and the characters') questions in a regular, story-telling motion, Morton uses an incredibly powerful writing style shift that grips your heart and soul and compels you to keep reading. Without this wonderful shift, it would not have been nearly as successful.

Now, the rest of the book. It wasn't a bad book; it had a great plot and storyline, but it simply took way too long to get to anything important. If the great reveal at the end of the book was told in a slightly less impacting manner, it would not have saved the book, and would have instead been a complete letdown.

The House at Riverton simply didn't flow in an even pattern. Rather than nice, mellow waves of a lazy river, it was a choppier, hectic one. The book consists of the present-day, older Grace telling stories and having flashbacks about her days at Riverton. However, this was not executed in a very graceful (no pun intended) manner; rather than having a consistent switching off between narratives, Morton would have the flashbacks occur for several chapters in a row, and then suddenly switch back to the present-day narrative within one of those chapters. There was no continuity. The only time in which I felt Morton did good work of using dual narratives was towards the end when she started to blur them together, which was a nice reflection of how Grace's life had been influenced and continues to be affected by her past at Riverton and with Hannah.

It was also hard for me to connect with the characters, which I think was one of the larger problems that sort of ruined the reading experience for me. The only character that I felt I could begin to connect with was Hannah due to her longing for independence and adventure; anyone who has been or felt stuck in their life or in one place can understand that longing to explore the world and be your own person, rather than just act as a mere toy for a man's world. Grace was understandable, but I could never quite understand her actions, or lack thereof, which often left me frustrated and confused. I will, however, commend Morton for maintaining a consistent tone and personality with Grace; she remained reliable in her views and opinions. Overall, however, there was too much distance between all of the characters involved.

Morton's saving grace was her wonderful descriptions of the people, places, and things that inhabit the time period in which this story is set, the early 1900s. She was truly able to capture the life of housemaids and the rest of the serving staff, as well as the lives of those who the staff work for. Everything was very precise and spot-on, and I have to admit I was reminded of Downton Abbey a few time during the household descriptions.

Overall, I would have to give The House at Riverton three stars. It had excellent plot potential, but unfortunately lacked the execution that would have made it truly unforgettable.

If you like historical fiction books like The House at Riverton,  you might also like:

Set in the early 1900s London, The Paying Guests focuses on the life of a woman named Frances, who, along with her mother, decided to rent out their house two a young couple, unbeknownst to what troubles will arise.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
This book follows a young woman who has been married to a merchant seller and must now move from her life to live at his house. She receives a miniature set of the house itself as a wedding gift, and is shocked when she finds that someone is sending her miniature additions that are a bit too close to home.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George is on sale next Tuesday, June 23rd! Don't forget!

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. Crown; 2015. 400 pages. Ebook. 

**I received a free copy of this novel courtesy of NetGalley**

Small bookshops with passionate owners are often the lifeblood of many avid readers. Sure, the book selection may not be quite as large and the prices may not be as cheap as other stores, but it's the atmosphere and experience itself that makes it so worthwhile.

The Little Paris Bookshop (apparently I'm into books about books this weekcenters around Jean Perdu, owner of the Literary Apothecary, a book barge that caters to people much as a pharmacy would: Perdu determines what ails them, and then he finds a book to treat them. Perdu is a brokenhearted man who has lived out most of his life pining for his past love. One day, however, he abruptly unties his barge and begins sailing down the river on an unknown adventure, and thus begins our story.

With The Little Paris Bookshop, George has crafted a word entirely her own, full of wisdom and experiences that are created from her elegant and lyrical prose. It is adventurous and full of life. However, It is not a purely happy and carefree book, but one that confronts many forms of love and loss. George tackles these subjects in both calm and harsh ways, and with writing the begs to be remembered and pondered. I highlight so many phrases and ideas throughout this novel; there were simply too many things that I could personally relate to or completely understand. George's writing style is most accurately and simply described as lovely. She writes with passion and hope.

The beginning of the novel was wonderful and had me hooked. However, I began to lose interest as the novel progressed and Perdu took to the waters. He ended up with a few male friends to accompany him on his journey, which seemed to somehow drag the novel a bit off course. There was a constant underlying theme of trying to find love and work through loss, yes, but the whole 'book' aspect seemed to somewhat disappear. This wouldn't be such a problem if it wasn't highlighted as one of the main focal points of the novel.

Perdu himself is an interesting, rather quirky man. As mentioned above, he has been pining for a long lost love for years, and finally decides to overcome this. I understand that this was his 'one true love,' but it did become somewhat annoying to hear him harping on about her all the time. I wanted to shake him and make him see that there is so much more to life than this doom that he has kept inside himself for decades of his life. Perdu is accompanied by a rather eccentric cast of characters, some of which maintain small roles as tenants in his apartment building, while others become close friends and companions along his journey. Each characters brings a very unique personality and perspective that makes for an overall enjoyable and odd round of characters.

Despite the wonders and beauty of this book, I can't say that I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would. It's a wonderful little story, but it didn't quite grab me. I got lost or bored by unnecessary or random encounters and rambling tangents of Perdu. For some, this could be the reason they love the story, but I personally did not. It made the book hard for me to get through at times. Overall, I have to give The Little Paris Bookshop three stars. It was a fun book with a good plot, but it simply fell flat at many times when it could have been much more.

This title is available next Tuesday, June 23rd!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

The Book of Speculation will be released next Tuesday, June 23rd by St. Martin's Press. Mark your calendars, because you won't want to miss this one!

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler. St. Martin's Press; 2015. Hardcover/Hardback. 352 pages.

**I received a free copy of this ARC via NetGalley**

Let's be honest, who doesn't love books about books? The Shadow of the Wind, The Thirteenth Tale, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, etc. are some much loved books that revolve around books. There's something immensely warm and comforting about reading something where the main character is in love with books just as much as the reader - or at least ends up making some serious life decisions based off of books in one way or another. I've also heard many people comparing this book to The Night Circus, but alas, I have not read that book and thus cannot make any judgments on that manner.

The Book of Speculation revolves around Simon Watson, a thirty-something-year-old librarian who receives a random antique book in the mail from an older, unknown bookseller known as Mr. Martin Churchwarry, who traced the book's history to Simon's ancestors, and thus felt curious enough to send it to Simon. The book turns out to be a record book from a circus-owner, which has some rather shocking connections to Simon's own family, who have been involved in the circus for generations in one way or another. His sister, Enola, is actually a current tarot card reader in a circus.

The story alternates chapters between Simon's life and that of a young boy named Amos, who finds his home in the circus that is recorded in Simon's book. Now, generally I hate split narratives, but I actually didn't mind them too much in this book. Both stories were equally enticing and tied in perfectly with one another.

Simon is a rather stoic character who seems to take the weight of the world on his shoulders simply because he feels that it is his responsibility. When his and Enola's parents died when they were kids, Simon worked nonstop in order to provide for and take of his sister. I can't say that I felt overly connected to Simon's character, but he did have a certain charisma that draws you to him. Enola, on the other hand, is a rather flighty character who has acted on impulse for much of her life. She seems to embody the true 'circus type,' who believes in her talents and enjoys not being tied down anywhere. Simon and Enola have opposite goals: Simon wants to uncover and figure out his family's history, whereas Enola simply wants to forget it and move on.

The Book of Speculation has a rather consistent dreary and dark atmosphere. You know how some TV shows that are meant to be scary or overly serious and dark are always somewhat bathed in a dark, somewhat color-lacking light? That's sort of how I pictured this book. Like the entire book had a constant rain cloud over it. That's not to say it was a bad or severely depressing book that was unreadable; on the contrary, it was written in such a manner that created a need to find out what was going to happen in these characters lives. This overall atmosphere was helped in large part due to Swyler's writing style. She wrote in such a way that it was both haunting and beautiful at the same time. It was smooth and poetic in moments of beauty and loss, yet jilting and abrupt in moments of peril and uncertainty. The pacing was slightly slower than most novels, but it was a welcome slowness. It gives the reader a chance to breathe in this unfortunate cursed family's life and history, rather than rushing the reader along in order to uncover the next major plot points. Instead, the plot comes slowly, almost unexpectedly, which creates even more anticipation of what will happen.

Overall, I have decided to give The Book of Speculation four stars. It was truly lovely, and I can easily say that I looked forward to reading it each day. This is definitely one for circus lovers, book lovers, mystery lovers, or anyone interested in an intriguing and complicated family history.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Riverhead Books; 2014. 564 pages. Hardback/Hardcover.

It's the 1920s in London, just a few years after the end of the first world war. Families are dealing with the losses of loved ones, soldiers are adjusting to civilian life, social unease is strong, and small pockets and financial woes abound. Mrs. Wray and her daughter Frances have decided to take on boarders Lilian and Leonard Barber in order to pay the bills. Throughout this arrangement, the four experience a vast amount of trials and changes that forever alter their lives.

What I loved about The Paying Guests was the way in which Waters deal with a many psychological issues that reflect the current customs and ideals of the time period, as well as modern struggles with feelings of shame, guilt, desire, and love. Waters writes with great fluidity, which appears almost poetic at times. She knows exactly how to craft a sentence or phrase to convey the exact emotions she wants, or to hint at exactly what she wants you to feel or know. As a reader, you can truly feel what each character is feeling. You take a journey with Frances as she deals with her life, and this journey slowly morphs and begins to envelop the life of Lilian, which allows us to become fully immersed in the story.

In a similar manner, Waters effectively depicts the entire time period involving the strict class system, elitism of the upper class, and a variety of other details that aren't always actively noticed, but greatly assist in creating a perfect setting and atmosphere. The plot line is both complex and simple at the same time; the ideas and elements are simple, but the execution, emotions, and overarching themes and ideas are much deeper than ever expected. It is darker than it is light, but not overly so.

Waters crafts characters with very strong, distinct personalities.Frances is a strong-willed woman who is not afraid to push aside some of the conventions of society in order to take of herself, her mother, and her household (such as by cleaning her own household - quite shocking, yes. I also get down on my hands and knees to clean areas of the floor sometimes - scandalous). Frances is dynamic in an unconventional way. She doesn't undergo any huge coming-of-age type change, nor does her personality alter; instead, she is changed by the hardships and obstacles that she must overcome in order to be with who she loves, and the consequences that result from that desire. Mrs. Wray, Frances' mother, is quite a bit different from Frances - she is much more rule- and tradition-abiding than her daughter, and has quite a delicate heart and frame. She loves her family dearly, but doesn't appear to be the type who would go to extreme or dangerous lengths to save them.

Lastly, we have the Barbers - Lilian and Leonard. Lilian is a young woman trying to maintain a happy lifestyle, but secretly struggles with being stuck in a marriage and life that she doesn't want. Lilian is a very complex character, and Waters does very careful work to slowly peel away her layers to eventually reveal her innermost self. Lilian slowly discovers herself and opinions at almost the same times as the reader does, which creates a very enthralling and captivating experiences. Leonard is also depicted a cheery man, and a rather flirtatious one at that. We have hints at his attractions to other women in his not-so-subtle flirting with Frances. Leonard is also a rather sexist man who seems to strongly follow the traditional customs of a man being in charge of his wife, which is evident as the novel progresses. Leonard floats in the background here and there throughout the beginning of the novel, but slowly becomes more and more important as the story goes on. Just as we peel back the layers and learn about Lilian, we do the same with Leonard, but in a slightly different and more indirect manner.

I won't lie, there are some slower moments throughout this novel. There are events that just seem to drag on and on and you wish would just move on already. This, however, is one of the things that I think makes this novel brilliant. As Frances and Lilian struggle with a major, devastating event (I won't go into too much detail - no spoilers!), we are meant to be sitting, feeling just as anxious, exhausted, and fidgety as they feel. It really sets the overall atmosphere of each scene throughout the book.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this The Paying Guests and have decided to give it four-and-a-half stars. I did love this book, and struggled a lot between four and five stars; it just barely missed my five-star mark. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, complex characters, or page-turning reads!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku. Doubleday; 2008. 329 pages. Paperback/Softcover. 

Have you ever been watching or reading a science fiction movie or book and wondered if that crazy gadget or idea could actually happen? Do you want an invisibility like Harry Potter? Do you want to fly into the future with Marty McFly? Michio Kaku will discuss whether or not this is a real possibility in the future.

The purpose of this book is basically to go over the biggest ideas of science fiction, such as invisibility, force fields, starships, fourth dimensions, etc., and discuss the plausibility of each one in real, scientific terms. I definitely think you might be surprised at some of the results.

Kaku lays out the book in extremely simple terms. There are three main sections of the book: Class I impossibilities, which are impossibilities today, but do not violate any laws of physics and could eventually become possible; Class II Impossibilities, which are still slightly within our realm of understanding, but would not come into existence for millions of years; lastly, there are Class III impossibilities, which violate known laws of physics - if they ever become possible, things in our world are even less than what we think. Within each category, Kaku touches upon a plethora of ideas created from the works and worlds of science fiction.

As far as readability goes, this book is wonderful at explaining things in terms that scientists and non-scientists alike can understand. I'm definitely not scientifically inclined (though not for lack of trying...), but I was able to understand just about everything. (Science fascinates me, but I'm just not very good at understanding and processing science -  though I really wish I could.)

What I really loved about this book was Kaku's writing itself. He writes about things that would normally probably bore me to tears, but because of his personality and incredibly smooth writing technique I was able to fully understand and enjoy all parts of this book. Kaku also retains a good sense of objectivity; he incorporates his own personality and style, but does this in a manner so that he doesn't interject his own opinions on the plausibility or rationality of any specific idea. He keeps his mind wide open to any and all possibilities.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys science fiction, science in general, technology and advanced technology, or even if you're just curious about whether or not you could have a cloak like Harry Potter! Physics of the Impossible has received four stars from me because it was immensely fascinating and enjoyable, but not quite up to five stars.

You might also like: